Have I got a story for you. Earlier this month I paid a visit to two cities on the German/Polish border: Frankfurt on der Oder [German] and Slubice [Polish], separated by the River Oder. They used to be two sides of one German city, but Poland ended up with everything east of the river after WWII. The people who live in these cities don’t have much personal history there: Frankfurt was evacuated during WWII and very few of the residents ever returned; meanwhile Poles were brought in from elsewhere to resettle Slubice when it became Polish territory. There is one bridge across the river between the two cities (see above). From the end of WWII until 2007 it was at times a controlled border crossing and at other times closed completely. But now that Poland has joined the European Union’s border-free Schengen Zone, anyone can walk over the bridge without so much as a Simon says. The result: people who spent many years having nothing to do with one another (save perhaps a black market cigarette sale) are suddenly close neighbors. And although the two cities are starting to connect in small ways, traveling across the bridge is rarely a part of daily life. You can’t take public transportation from one to the other, for example.
Enter Michael Kurzwelly. An artist who speaks both German and Polish, he moved to the area in 1998 and began staging public “interventions” to explore issues of identity along the border. Most of these interventions center around his vision of a united city, called Slubfurt, and with help from other residents he has set about convincing people that it really exists. At the invitation of Florence Maher, a fellow Fulbrighter studying border politics at Viadrina European University in Frankfurt, I took a tour of Slubfurt and talked to Kurzwelly about his work.
Kurzwelly’s projects have been wide-ranging. He created a Slubfurt coat of arms, a rooster sitting on an egg. With a nod to the medieval city walls so prevalent across Europe, he got permission to erect wall fragments that delineate the Slubfurt city boundaries, a symbol of enclosure rather than division:
With help from other residents he staged parliament elections for Slubfurt; the parliament meets regularly despite its lack of official political power. An array of glossy tourist information awaits the Slubfurt visitor: an impressive travel guide, a color map of the city, and tours led by Kurzwelly himself. In each case some of the information is factual and some of it is not: Kurzwelly worked with local university students to change the street names on the map, and he makes up stories about local landmarks to suit his purposes. For another project residents were invited to sign up for dinner in the home of someone who lives across the river; a Slubfurt cookbook, with recipes that blend the cuisine of both cities, is forthcoming. “Mediatekas” in the two public libraries provide a wealth of resources for the curious, including artifacts donated by Slubfurt residents—accompanied by personal stories—that can be checked out like books:
This is just the tip of the iceberg; I could go on for several more paragraphs describing the efforts to actualize Slubfurt.
People seem to be catching on. While I wouldn’t call it a groundswell, Kurzwelly has drawn enough attention to the divide between the two cities that there now seems to be a public dialogue about border issues where one didn’t previously exist. When Kurzwelly offered the residents of both cities the opportunity to apply for official Slubfurt identity cards, 300 people signed up within the first two days. You get the sense that if Kurzwelly ever left the area people would genuinely miss his interventions. He was even asked to serve on the culture committee for the Frankfurt local government.
I find Kurzwelly’s work fascinating and brilliant. Bit by bit, he and his collaborators are creating a new sense of place for these two border cities. And they are doing it from the ground up (Kurzwelly actively encourages anyone and everyone to submit suggestions for interventions and to participate in their execution). What’s more, Kurzwelly believes in a lighthearted approach, which not only makes it more fun for his audience but also allows him to create a strong breeze without ruffling too many feathers. Public historians could learn a lot from his approach.
Eleven years on, the city of Slubfurt now has its own history. Who’s to say it isn’t real?
A special thanks to Florence Maher and Michael Kurzwelly for sharing Slubfurt with me. I came away with tons of Slubfurt material—the travel guide and map, campaign materials, a DVD—that I am happy to share with any interested individuals. And post a blog comment if you have ideas of your own for further Slubfurt interventions; I am making a list for Kurzwelly.